DIEN THAP, Vietnam, Sep 6 (Reporting ASEAN) – Visitors travelling for the first time to this commune in the country’s north-central coast will find it quite well off. In fact, locals call it “a village of multi-storey houses,” “a village of cars,” and “a village of villas”. But there is another name by which it is known: a village of absentee fathers.
At least one member of each household here, usually the father or the mother but at times both, head west and cross the border to Laos to engage in trading. Selling merchandise, including household items from Vietnam, to Lao people helps locals earn more.
Hoang Duong is a Grade 9 student at Dien Thap Middle School. Only his mother is around to take care of him and his two siblings. His father is away most days doing business in Laos — a situation that has been going on for more than 10 years. Whenever his father is home, which is often just for several days, he is busy preparing for his next trip.
Duong’s mother, Mai, has had to quit her job to take care of her three sons and help them with their homework.
Despite the fact that she devotes all of her time to her family and her children are doing well in school, she worries for them. Duong, she explains, has reached the age of “stubbornness”. He is usually quiet and does not speak to her, Mai adds. “I have to ask his dad to talk more to the kids.”
Ten-year-old Thuy Vy and her younger brother are in similar straits. Her father works in Oudomxai in northern Laos. Every day, she waits for him to call. And when he does, they would share stories about how the day went while her mother is busy cooking in the kitchen.
Vy looks forward to the end of each month, when her father comes home from Laos with foodstuff such as milk, chicken, and beef. Days spent with him, along with the rest of the family, are happy occasions for her.
Vy is even happier during the summer and the heavy rains it brings, because it is the time her father stays at home with the family. For her father and his peers similarly doing business in Laos, the rainy months are off-season since they have less income. But it is also when their children are happy because the whole family can get together.
Some 1,350 Dien Thap residents currently work in Laos. They live just several hundreds of kilometres away from the Vietnam-Laos border. Thanks to the smooth trade route between the two countries, many parents travel to Laos to do manual work or engage in trading.
Between 2012 and 2013, the economic slump saw many fathers and mothers leaving their children with their grandparents in order to go to work in Laos. Two years later, when economic conditions began to improve, many mothers opted to stay at home to take care of their children, while the fathers pursued their work or business in Laos.
Through the years, more overseas job opportunities became available to the people of Nghe An province. Among these was labour migration to countries farther away, such as Malaysia.
While this brought new opportunities for many, this has also meant that many more adults left their children behind when working overseas.
Đinh Nho Quan, 15, has not seen his mother since he was two years old. His poor family, who lives in Hamlet 4, Hung Tan commune in Hung Nguyen district, lived off the meager incomes of his parents. His father was a construction worker, while his mother was a farmer.
In 2001, his mother moved to Malaysia to work in a textile factory, leaving then two-year-old Quan in the care of his frail grandmother. During her five years worked overseas, Quan’s mother did not come home even for a brief visit.
When she finally went home after finishing her contract, she built a new house for her family using her savings and a small loan from relatives. Not long after she returned, she went back to work in Malaysia once again.
While Quan may have grown used to the absence of his mother, his younger brother Nho, 6, longs for her return every day.
Nguyen Thi Ngan Ha, a student at Trung Do middle school, knows only too well what it is like not to have one’s parents around and be looked after by kin instead. She has lived away from her mother since she was in Grade 3.
When her parents separated, Ha stayed with her mother whose work as a tailor allowed her to earn only 3 to 4 million Vietnamese dong (135 to 180 US dollars) a month. She eventually decided to work in Malaysia, following in the footsteps of others who had jumped at the chance to earn higher income in another country.
Ha stayed at home with her grandparents, who received 3 million Vietnamese dong (135 US dollars) in monthly support from her mother. In the first three years since she left and determined to earn more money, Ha’s mother did not come home even once and instead worked extra hours in an electronic components assembly company. Her only chance to speak with her mother was by phone.
After three years, Ha’s mother finally came home for a visit and left some photos of her. Whenever she misses her mother, Ha would take out these photos and gaze at them.
At home, she shares her thoughts and feelings with her grandmother. In 2015, Ha’s grandmother died of cancer, leaving her with her grandfather. In the evenings, they would cook and have dinner together. Ha still feels sad though.
Like other children in the province, Ngo Thi Dung misses having both parents around.
The sixth-grade student at Nguyen Thi Minh Khai school in Hung Tan commune, Hung Nguyen district, has been living without her father since she was three years old.
Her father, who works in Malaysia, came home only once during the past 10 years. She and her sister often view his photos so they will not forget his face. It was only a matter of time, when they had somehow grown accustomed to their situation, before her mother also went to work in Malaysia.
Since Dung entered Grade 2, and her sister got into Grade 5, they have been fending for themselves, since both of their parents are away. During the day, they have lunch at their maternal grandmother’s house, where they also do housework and take care of their uncle’s child.
In the evenings, they sleep in the house of their 80-year-old paternal grandmother so they could also take care of her.
Dung still recalls the first time she had her menstrual period. She was alone and so scared that she cried a lot. Her sister comforted her and instructed her on how to use sanitary pads.
Whenever her mother calls home, Dung begs her: “We can live in an ugly house. You don’t have to work so hard abroad to build a beautiful house. Please come home, mommy. Don’t be gone too long.”
In March 2016, her mom finished her employment contract and came home. She started building a new house on her accumulated savings. Dung was excited at the thought of having a more comfortable house, but also worried that her mother would go away again.
“Mommy came home with us. But if she can’t find a job at home, she will go again for sure. We really miss her; we can’t stand days without her!” Dung said.
Like Quan, Ha, and Dung, 13-year-old student ‘H’, (not her real name) lives with her grandparents. But her circumstances are quite different.
Her father got hooked on drugs and stopped sending money home. Her mother, who was working in Laos, seldom came home. Her grandparents, being too old and weak, could not fully take care of her.
She eventually fell into bad company, skipped class, and having turned truant, was often found playing online games in Internet shops. One day, she came home, stole money from her grandparents then disappeared for months. When she was finally found, H was with a group of friends, smoking a cigarette.
The case of another youngster, who we shall call ‘P’, is hardly different. She was in Grade 2 when her father moved south and her mother went abroad to work. Today, at 14, she lives with grandparents and other relatives in Vinh City, the capital of Nghe An province.
Growing up, P increasingly became unruly and did whatever she pleased. On social media, especially Facebook, she craved friends’ attention and praise. Thus, she would update it with her explicit photos to generate more “likes”.
The more likes she got, the more guys sought to get acquainted with her and ask her out on a date. Her grandparents got wind of her behaviour and advised her to avoid strangers. She got mad and ran away home. When she ran out of money, P returned home and stole money from her family.
According to Nguyen Thi My Luong, vice head of the Protecting Children Office under the Department of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs in Nghe An province, some 2,747 children have not lived with their parents for more than six months. Since their parents work far away from home, these children have high risks of being exposed to dangerous or difficult situations. When they violate the law, they become victims of sexual abuse or child labour, or become homeless.
However, government authorities have yet to develop policies or programs responding to the needs of migrants’ children. At present, there are just four officially recognised priority groups of children and youth in vulnerable or difficult situations – orphans, children with disabilities, victims of Agent Orange/dioxin, and those with HIV and/or AIDS.
Social Costs, Few Benefits
Across Vietnam, Nghe An province has the highest number of overseas workers. The lack of job opportunities in the country has forced many people to seek employment or do business in neighbouring countries, including Laos.
Since Laos borders the province, people find it very easy to travel back and forth. Some travel to other places like Malaysia according to a signed cooperation agreement between the two countries. Since the birth of the ASEAN Economic Community, the number of people who have travelled to Malaysia has increased.
As of 2015, an estimated 2,139 Nghe An residents work as migrant labour in Malaysia. These migrants mainly work in fields that do not have very highly skilled requirements.
Working in Malaysian factories and plants brings them 8 to 13 million Vietnamese dong (360 to 585 US dollars) a month – higher than their average incomes at home. Under their formal contracts with foreign companies, Vietnamese working in Malaysia can enjoy benefits such as paid vacation time and health insurance.
The Vietnamese and Malaysian governments assist workers so that they have proper labour contracts and get their rights under the law. However, they have yet to look at other aspect of migration, including the situation of migrants’ children and the social cost of migration for work.
*The original Vietnamese version of this article was published in ‘Red Scarf’ magazine. This feature was produced under the Reporting ASEAN project run by IPS Asia-Pacific and Probe Media Foundation with the support of the ASEAN Foundation and Japan – ASEAN Solidarity Fund.